Federer and Djokovic headline Shanghai Masters semi-finals
The headlining semi-final of the Shanghai Masters will be -with apologies to Andy Murray -the match between long-term rivals, numbers two and three in the world, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Indeed, since Rafael Nadal’s exit in the third round killed, once again, the hoped-for match-up between him and Federer, this semi-final has been the most talked about contest in Shanghai.
The prospect is truly mouth-watering, for they will be meeting for an extraordinary 17th time, though Djokovic is still only 23 years old. What’s more, the Serb has more than held his own, with honours even since Djokovic won their semi-final clash at the Australian Open in 2008.
What gives their latest meeting some extra spice is that Djokovic beat Federer in a five-set thriller in the semi-finals of the US Open last month – his first victory over his rival in four consecutive meetings in New York.
That match followed hard on the heels of another no-holds-barred contest just three weeks before in the Toronto Masters: that one went to Federer.
There’s also the small question of ranking at stake. Djokovic has owned the No2 slot since his win in New York, but Federer will take it back again after Shanghai. That’s how close these two men are.
The style of their progress has only served to pour more oil on the fire. Djokovic made quicksilver speed to the quarter-finals for the loss of just eight games, so he was expected to make light work of the unseeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
The Spaniard had won 10 of his last 11 matches, captured the Bangkok title, and risen to a career-high of No35, but it took Djokovic just 77 minutes to beat him 6-2 6-3.
Djokovic, too, played well within himself, averaged over 70 per cent on his first serve, and defended with speed and flexibility. It is hard to find a weakness in the Serb’s game at the moment, and with his rediscovered confidence and apparent super-fitness, he is proving to be worth his ranking.
If Djokovic was hot favourite to win his quarter-final, the odds were less short for Federer over the big Swede, Robin Soderling. The two had played 14 times, with Federer dominating 13-1. However, they had shared the spoils in their last two matches, with Soderling breaking through in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros to end Federer’s record-breaking 23 consecutive Slam semi-finals.
Neither man dropped a set on his way to what promised to be a big showdown. Soderling in particular likes the hard courts and temperate conditions that Shanghai offers. So Federer was as surprised as anyone to wipe the floor with the Swede in just 54 minutes, 6-1 6-1: “He didn’t have one of his best days.”
It was, in fact, an error-strewn game on both sides, but the Swede constantly missed the lines by inches, and served at just 53 per cent. With his potent weapon missing, it was open season for Federer, who was guilty of numerous errors of his own, though that can be put down to the lack of rhythm he could generate from Soderling’s wayward play.
Soderling will have to wait until his next match to find the points to qualify for the World Tour Finals, but that is a matter of when not if. Federer, meanwhile, can enjoy his evening’s Mandarin classes basking in the satisfaction of his 220th Masters match win, a record he took from Andre Agassi in Cincinnati.
So yes, it is the two best men in the lower half of the draw who will take to the court for the second semi-final, and it will be a humdinger -impossible to call.
But ahead lies the almost certain prospect of Murray. Though his will not be the headline match on semi-final Saturday, that is no reflection on the tennis Murray has played in Shanghai. He cruised past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a mere 55 minutes without facing a break point. It is, rather, a reflection on the unexpected opponent that he faces.
World No41 Juan Monaco won the most hotly contested of the semi-finals against the man who beat Nadal, Austrian Jurgen Melzer. Despite the contrast in their rankings, the Argentine held the 4-1 advantage in matches over Melzer, and it took him almost three hours of tough tennis to take that tally to 5-1.
Monaco has never reached a Masters semi-final before, and he now has a lot of tennis in his legs, including three tie-breakers. If Murray maintains his form, he should make straightforward progress to the final.
And by Sunday, Murray may also feel the benefit of being first on court on Saturday. He’s barely broken sweat so far, will have a good four hours longer to recover from his semi, and will most likely face a man who has been pushed to the limits.
So the omens for Murray are looking very good indeed. He faces the very real prospect of taking his second Masters title of the autumn.